Surveillance

Facebook’s Report on Government Spying Sheds Little New Light


Facebook (FB) has released information about government requests the company receives, a move that comes several years after Google (GOOG) and Twitter began issuing transparency reports. The first of what Facebook says will be regular reports offers little new information about how Silicon Valley is cooperating with U.S. government surveillance efforts.

The giant social network appears to be of particular interest to government officials. According to the report, Facebook received 11,000 to 12,000 requests from the U.S. government concerning 20,000 to 21,000 users during the first six months of this year. The sheer volume of requests is more than three times that of any other government. Indian officials, by contrast, made 3,245 inquiries about 4,114 users.

Facebook complied with U.S. requests 79 percent of the time. Twitter received just 815 requests from U.S. officials between July and December of last year, the period covered by its most recent report, and complied 69 percent of the time. During the same period, Google received 8,438 requests and complied 88 percent of the time.

Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook, said the company only released information when it absolutely had to:

“We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request. We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name.”

The company had already published some information on its interaction with law enforcement earlier this summer, shortly after the first revelations about the National Security Agency’s digital snooping program. But it was criticized in some corners—including by Google—because the report didn’t reveal information about national security letters it received. Facebook, Google, and Twitter say they’ve been pressing the government to allow them to release more specific information.

Facebook’s latest report continues to incorporate national security-related requests, without breaking them out from requests related to criminal investigations. It also reports the requests from U.S. officials in a range because it’s required by law to be somewhat vague about certain national security requests. Like the other Silicon Valley companies, Facebook complies with requests from U.S. officials at a higher rate than it does with most other governments.

But not all of them. In Hong Kong and Iceland, for instance, the company provided information every time it was requested. Of course, officials from both Hong Kong and Iceland asked only once.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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